Catalogue essay for the Vicki Mason exhibition Botanical Fictions, e.g.etal, Melbourne and Gallery Bilk, Queanbeyan, Australia, 2011
The other day I renewed my driver’s license. Uploading my identity into the matrix was a strangely disembodying experience. Accompanied by the clatter of scans and clicks, I made my way to the front of the queue before finally being snapped by a photo-bot and then ushered out into the street. It felt like I’d been mugged, even though all my belongings were intact.
But a pleasant surprise was in store. When the card arrived, my portrait wasn’t the only ghostly presence on its surface. Amid the phantasmagorial holograms and reflective stripes I could discern the abstract outline of a plant form. Indeed, the accompanying letter informed me that the card was embedded with the image of a ‘common heath’, the official floral emblem of Victoria. I was quite touched that this connection with nature would survive the technocratic state.
High up in the information cloud, we are increasingly grateful for such signs of the world of here below. Traditionally, jewellery played an important role in forging the floral emblems that signify place. The development of this local language runs parallel with the emergence of a national identity. While much of the goldfields jewellery was styled after the cameos in transatlantic centrepieces, the late nineteenth century English Arts & Crafts movement turned our attention to local flora. European migrants like the Latvian Niina Ots played a major role in moulding a nationalist jewellery. From today’s perspective, such craft can often seem quite literal in its reliance on iconic Australian symbols. This nationalism was expressed through gems, such as opal and pearl, and fauna, particularly the kangaroo and emu.
From the 1970s, the influence of modernism liberated jewellers from their debt to tradition. The inherited understanding of nature was stripped back to reveal lived individual experience. A key figure in this modernist turn is Marian Hosking, who developed a unique language of silver in order to express a certain tactile experience of nature, beyond familiar motifs. This language is expressed largely through metal by piercing and casting. Such techniques present a nature immanent in touch.
While Vicki Mason also makes the connection between adornment and place, her work is unusual for at least two reasons.
First, she draws as much from the haberdashery as the foundry. She manipulates plastic like a fabric—cutting, folding and coiling it to create new textures. With these materials, she can create works of great colour intensity that at the same time continues the mission of contemporary jewellery to critique preciousness.
Her work has a particularly suburban feel. The power-coated brass, silver and copper presents an artificial sheen produced by chemical processes, rather than hand-filing and polishing. It evokes not just the blooming garden bed, but also the cast iron fence. Part of the effect of Mason’s jewellery is the alchemic capacity to transform such artificial materials into objects of organic beauty.
Second, she deals mostly with the symbolic meaning of flora, rather than her own experience. While this may make her work appear stereotypical, it also opens great potential for semiotic play. Her work creates historical resonances. Vicki Mason draws from past ornamental traditions, such as the mid-nineteenth century ceramics of Mason’s Ironstone China. But it also evokes the collective ritual of flowers.
The semiotic play in her work engages with traditions for arranging flowers. The works in this exhibition reflect the form of the bouquet—a cluster of flowers bound at the stem to be used as a handheld decoration. The bouquet is found in comic festivals, such as wedding ceremonies. In gathering a garden bounty, arrangements like the bouquet celebrate our natural world. Vicki Mason’s jewellery gives this seasonal display a more enduring presence.
Vicki Mason opens up the potential for exploration of other floral bundles. In our Asia Pacific region, the garland is popular way of honouring guests. Like the daisy chain, it is a series of flowers threaded sequentially, then bestowed on a visitor as a sign of welcome. More soberly, the wreath is a series of flowers woven around a circular structure to decorate a grave. Each particular constellation of flowers has a unique syntax that parallels different jewellery forms, like the ring and bracelet. In her handsome brooches, Vicki Mason joins jewellery with floristry.
As technology ‘smartens’ our lives, taking us out of ourselves, jewellers like Vicki Mason play an increasingly important role in finding our way back home. Welcome back.